Home > 1 John, Bible Study, hermeneutics, John MacArthur, S. Lewis Johnson > Study the Scripture: 1 John 5:16-17

Study the Scripture: 1 John 5:16-17


I appreciate S. Lewis Johnson’s advice concerning how to study the Bible, in which he recommends the use of a few good English translations — and to look at the words and the context:

As I have so often said if you have two or three translations made fairly accurately, like the New American Standard Bible or the International version and then the old King James Version if you have those three versions before you and you studiously studied them you would be able to be a premier student of the word of God without any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew.  For the simple reason as you read and pondered those texts in English you would be able to discover where the problems were because the authors would differ here and there in their renderings of the text. And then by the study of their context you would be almost always able to make a decision that would be the right decision, because almost all interpretative problems are solved by an accurate, careful, perceptive knowledge of the context….  Study the Bible for yourself.

As one example concerning different translations, consider 1 John 5:16-17:

KJV:  If any man see his brother sin a sin [which is] not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.  All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

ESV:   If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life-to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.  All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

Notice that the KJV translation has the added little word “a” — “There is a sin unto death” and “there is a sin not unto death.”  If someone merely looks at the authorized version (KJV) they might think that John is talking about a specific sin, and from this come some incorrect understandings of what the “sin unto death” and the “sin not unto death” is really talking about.

The next part of SLJ’s advice concerns how we look at the detail, the actual words and their context.  In the case of 1 John 5:16-17, some have interpreted “sin unto death” as a reference to the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (from Matthew 12), or to the sin of apostasy.  But if we closely examine the text, it is clear that it is not talking about either of these, but the sin of a believer that leads to physical death — as described also in 1 Corinthians 11.

First, the verse says “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin” — which indicates that it’s talking about a believer, a Christian brother.  A Christian cannot be guilty of eternal sin.  We also know, from the more modern translations, that John is not talking about any one particular sin.  Verse 17 reinforces the point of verse 16, too, by pointing out that “all wrongdoing is sin,” so again John is talking about sin generally, not any one specific sin — much less the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which we would never see a brother commit in the first place.  Here is further commentary from SLJ, in his exposition of this text:

It’s obvious he’s speaking generally.  Any sin that one persists in which is within the whole body of sin, generally.  Persistent sin exposes one to the possibility of a disciplinary chastisement of physical death.  Willful continued sin then of any kind.  If we are looking at the Epistle of 1 John, we would think of what he has been talking about in the epistle.  Unrighteousness, unlove among Christian brethren and sisters.  All of these things he has spoken about.  In other words, to put it in the language that all of us can understand, sometimes we are fit for heaven when we are not fit for the earth.  In other words, having been brought to faith in Jesus Christ, a true faith, if we persist in sin, the Lord may find it necessary to take our physical life.  The reproach brought upon his name by our sin is reason to take our lives physically.  It is a very solemn thing to think about isn’t it?  “Sin unto physical death” is something for all of us to think about.  Therefore, we don’t have anything from this particular context to make us think that John is talking about a definite sin.  There are no particular clues to any specific sin.  He’s talking about sin of all kinds in which a believer may persist.

Furthermore, the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is only mentioned once, and it’s a definite sin related to that historical situation where Jesus showed the nation of Israel, and its leaders, clear proofs that He was the promised Messiah.  Arnold Fruchtenbaum (a Christian from Orthodox Jewish background) has pointed out, concerning Matthew 12, that Jewish tradition held that the Messiah would be able to do three particular miracles:  cleansing of a leper, healing of a man born blind, and casting out a demon from a mute man.  (Exorcist tradition involved a step in which the exorcist asked the demoniac to identify himself by name; Jesus himself did so in other cases, such as the Gadarene demoniac.)  Matthew 12 describes the third case, casting a demon out of a mute, and the people seriously wondered at this point, could this be the Messiah?  Confronted with an undeniable miracle, the Pharisees instead attributed the Holy Spirit’s power to the devil.

John MacArthur also deals with the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12, in his book  The Jesus You Can’t Ignore — a book that specifically looks at the hard sayings of Jesus and His many confrontations with Israel’s leaders, culminating in this very incident.  MacArthur likewise notes the difference between this sin, and the sin unto physical death described in 1 John 5.

Wrong theology comes from incorrect Bible interpretation, and this is just one example of how we must all study the scriptures for ourselves, to see what a text actually says.  This is also the only way to really evaluate Bible preachers, to discern how closely they agree with what the text says, and discern which Bible teachers are worth listening to.

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: